It is entirely fitting that the Scottish Chamber Orchestra bagged the first event marking Sir James MacMillan’s 60th birthday year as its special relationship stretches back to the composer’s early beginnings. This concert was a rare birthday treat for performers and audience alike as the composer stepped up to conduct two of his ground-breaking works, the trailblazing percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emannuel, and the intensely spiritual Seven Last Words from the Cross. MacMillan explains that revisiting older works is akin to the delight of discovering faded letters in a drawer, demanding to be re-read. There was a tangible frisson of excitement in the hall as we waited to hear the composer’s treatment of these exciting pioneering works re-sharpened into pinpoint focus.

Sir James MacMillan
© Hansvander Woerd

Much of MacMillan’s music is liturgically rooted, seeking the spiritual, so Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten for strings and bell was a wonderful opening piece which set the scene and acknowledged two composers that MacMillan admired. It is an extraordinary and moving work with a continuous dense tapestry of strings ebbing and flowing as the bell tolls, at first from a distance, as if over Britten’s Suffolk marshes, then more insistent as the strings deepen, MacMillan holding them in a spellbinding trance.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra commissioned Veni, Veni, Emannuel premiering it at the 1992 Proms with Evelyn Glennie as soloist. In a rare feat for a late 20th-century classical work, MacMillan’s piece has had over 500 performances to date, many with percussionist Colin Currie who joined the players – his impressive array of instruments sprawling across the front of the platform. The piece is one continuous dramatic movement with eight sections, announcing Advent with a huge crash of the tam-tam and cacophony of instruments bursting with energy. In a real workout for the soloist, Currie scampered around his various drums and blocks, sticks a-whirl yet in close partnership with the players, sometimes playing across the beat, but most thrillingly in fast moving and complex figures in time with the orchestra through the heartbeats and dances. The French Advent plainchant arrives towards the end, Currie’s ghostly ethereal marimba emerging through the now calmer orchestral texture. MacMillan guided his players through the complicated score with confidence, a freshness of rediscovery evident in his precise gestures. The ending with all players tinkling chimes as Currie climbed to the back of the orchestra for his Easter peal of bells was spellbinding.

Colin Currie
© Linda Nylind

Commissioned by the BBC for Holy Week in 1994, Seven Last Words from the Cross for choir and string orchestra is described by the composer as seven adagios, tragic, introspective and reflective. It is a powerfully spiritual piece, one that throws immense challenges to the singers getting to grips with complicated rhythms, keeping series of thrilling but slightly dissonant chords in perfect pitch and including whisperings and layers of plainchant. The texts are the Last Words illustrated with extracts in Latin and English from Palm Sunday, Tenebrae and Good Friday liturgies. After yearning strings in “Father forgive them ..”, the shock of the repeated anguished exclamations “Woman, Behold Thy Son…Behold, Thy Mother” interspersed with silence had a huge impact. The more reflective “Verily, I say unto you…” with a double bass drone paired each section of the choir with corresponding strings in turn and a haunting solo violin ending with a passionate string episode. MacMillan’s use of lower strings, dense and rich, deepened the drama further before a parched high double bass note, feverish whisperings from the chorus and later trembling strings made Christ’s thirst vivid. Finally, the words are finished and the strings end the piece with hints of Scottish lament, MacMillan drawing shapes in the air as the final disjointed phrases disappear unpredictably into silence, like watching a life ending.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus under Chorus Master Gregory Batsleer was mesmerising, pitch perfect and dramatic. There is no room for passengers here, and both choir and orchestra were totally committed to express every nuance of this intense work. This birthday concert was one of these memorable events where performers and audience emerge somehow changed. We all need to seek out the soulful: MacMillan’s old letters are in fact jewels that need little polish to move and astound audiences today, just as they did almost 30 years ago. He is a busy man with the ink still drying on his fifth symphony (choral), but this was a splendid start to his big birthday year.